Empowerment and peer support: structure and process of self-help in a consumer-run center for individuals with mental illness


  • This project was funded by the Center for Mental Health Services, SAMHSA Grant No. UDISM52352. We are grateful for the research assistance of Jillian Doucette, Robin Myers, and Kathy Norman, and for the comments of the anonymous reviewers.


Personal empowerment is a guiding philosophy of many mental health service programs, but there has been little empirical research on the empowerment process in these programs. The authors examine social processes and consumer orientations within a self-help drop-in center for individuals with psychiatric disabilities, using intensive interviews and focus groups. They investigate motives for consumer involvement, bases for program retention, and processes of participant change. Motives for involvement in the center were primarily instrumental, whereas the bases of retention were more often maintaining social support and developing self-esteem. Participants valued the center's nonstigmatizing environment and its supportive consumer staff. Some used the opportunity to become a staff member to move into a more normalized social role; all seemed to derive benefits from helping peers. There were indications of some staff members adopting a more authoritarian posture, but participants repeatedly lauded most staff for their supportive orientation. The authors conclude that the “helper/therapy” process was a key to successful empowerment. © 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.